Shame and Last Tango in Paris…yes, it’s one of those entries…

I’ve been off work most of this week, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about this entry. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to a couple of films in particular, both separately and in comparison with one another, and those films are Last Tango in Paris and Shame. What got me thinking about the two films in relation to one another was one thing: sex. Obviously, sex is a key facet of creativity for a lot of people. It’s also a driving force, an escape, a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to completely ditch your friends, and many other things in between. The aforementioned films feature sex very heavily (and in some cases, explicitly). It is portrayed in many different lights between the two pieces, so I hope you’ll forgive the train-of-thought style that you’ll no doubt become used to if you keep reading this blog. Also I’m going to talk a little about Puss in Boots later, so if you can get through the coital slog, you’ll be rewarded with a furry little animal and a crude joke about Marlon Brando being rewarded with his own furry little animal in Last Tango. In fact, that was it. So you’ll just be getting the Puss in Boots bit. No more Marlon Brando jokes for you! Now then, open the rusty hinges of your mind’s legs and prepare to be lavished by the phallic extension of my brain…

I promise the next bit will be less lewd. Ok? Ok. Let’s talk Last Tango in Paris. First and foremost, this is a fantastic film. Great cinematography, direction, performances – all here. The plot centres around a fortysomething hotel owner named Paul (Marlon Brando) and a twentysomething girl named Jeanne (Maria Schneider) whom he meets incidentally. They express an interest in the same flat, and whilst viewing it, they have spontaneous sex up against a wall.

So begins a relationship based solely on physical companionship and a large degree of anonymity. The flat becomes a haven in which they block out the world and make love. As is the way in such relationships, things don’t remain carefree between the two, as outside forces govern their emotions and begin to alter their little world.

What really drew me into this film were the performances by the leads. Marlon Brando, who would seemingly be a nightmare to work with if reports on the film’s production are anything to go by, is beguiling and very genuine. There are several scenes where he just blows you away. He deftly switches from predatory to vulnerable seamlessly, and adds a surprising amount of pathos to proceedings…and then there’s Maria Schneider, one of Hollywood’s true beauties. Her veiled vulnerability provides a great counterpoint to Brando’s performance – at times it seems like he would be in danger of floating away into his own self-contained little universe if it weren’t for Schneider’s anchoring allure.

Shame is a film I’ve been fond of ever since I saw it on the day of release. In a lot of ways, it’s a cold film – it may leave some feeling like the film didn’t want you to see it. However, I believe there’s a lot of value in Shame; not least the fantastic turn by Michael Fassbender as the sex-addicted Brandon. What we get on the surface is a character-study-meets-social-hot-button-issue piece, similar to something like The Woodsman (which you should check out for Kevin Bacon’s conflicted and somehow sympathetic performance). Shame, however, shares more DNA with something like Aronofsky’s bruiser The Wrestler, or Taxi Driver – two films that Shame sits comfortably aside as a study of the darker recesses of the male psyche. Whereas The Wrestler and Taxi Driver tackle the pride/purpose-driven ego of the ageing man and the personal aftermath of war respectively, Shame delves into the murky recesses of sex-addiction in a man whose life is spiralling out of control because of his addiction.

I could easily have used The Wrestler or Taxi Driver as a companion to Shame for this entry. There’s a lot to be said for the comparisons. However, Last Tango contains some very interesting parallels when it comes to the perceived “fringe” aspects of sexuality. With Last Tango, co-writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci took inspiration from an impulse he had always wanted to give into: meeting a stranger on the street one day and beginning a passionate sexual affair with her. Within ten minutes of meeting in the film, the couple (Jeanne and Paul, remember?) are passionately humping. It’s a powerful opening – the animal urges, the messy positioning, the meet-erotic – and even now the throes of passion here take you by surprise. Their relationship is often portrayed as exciting and kinky, as well as a sexual ideal. Despite their similarities, Shame opens with an entirely different focus: the aftermath. Protagonist Brandon is shown making habitual circles around his flat post-coitus. He leaves his bedroom (naked) and moves from living room, to kitchen, to bathroom. He plays his answer phone messages. The process repeats. It’s a smart opening. Brandon goes around in circles, only stopping to eat or urinate; ignoring the pleas of his sister to call her back. Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (not that Steve McQueen) seems to be setting out a key theme of the film here: that you cannot necessarily understand addiction by closely examining a person’s everyday habits, even if those habits include indulging in the addiction. McQueen brings the shot closer upon Brandon’s second lap around the flat, as if to highlight the futility of attempting to glean an idea of why Brandon is the way he is. Brandon also spends a lot of time on the fringe of shots, further emphasising the point – just look at the masterfully composed jogging scene (go check out some of it in the trailer here)

In not allowing the viewer easy answers regarding Brandon’s condition, McQueen opens small moments up to deeper interpretation in the quest for answers. Towards the end of the film, we hear an answering machine message from Brandon’s sister (Sissy) saying – and I paraphrase here – that they are not bad people, they just come from a bad place. Even without the lack of here-and-now answers offered by the film, that particular moment is loaded with potential significance. However, the hidden details of Brandon’s younger years suggest more than the 100+ minutes that the film spends in the intrusive and bleak present. What we have here is a man damaged by his past. What we see on screen is the aftermath. A broken soul. A man with so little purpose that he reverts aggressively to primal instinct – with the body language and physical posturing that suggest an animal fighting against captivity. It’s here that Shame and Last Tango share an interesting little conflict. We’re pretty filled in about Paul’s plight in Last Tango *small spoiler*: dead wife, unfulfilled etc; whereas we get no background information on Brandon. What we have here it seems, are two different perspectives on what you could call “sexual deviance” – in context of course. Paul’s butter-for-anal-lubricant with a reluctant Jeanne VS Brandon’s predatorial perving and excessive prostitute custom. It’s all relative to time of release of course, but both films contain scenes that really have the ability to shake you.

The principal question that arises for me is: can socially objectionable acts be excused because of a past that was outside of the perpetrator’s control? As you may be aware from reading my old entries, I do quite like to think about films in the context of everyday life, and whilst I can’t really relate Shame or Last Tango in Paris to my life (at least directly – there’s always something relevant in truly great films), that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to apply these issues to the real world. Check out my piece on Polanski’s The Ghost a few articles back, where this issue rears its head in a slightly different manner: can we overlook an act of deviance on Polanski’s part and separate his deeds from his very good work? I don’t really have an answer for that necessarily, other than that art should be inherently appreciated/judged on its own merits first and foremost. What we have with Shame and Last Tango is a different slant on that argument. We’re not talking so much about art here as we are human beings. How far can a person be excused for misdeeds because of a bad upbringing or harsh circumstances? I’d suggest that if you want an interesting slant on the issue, look up Utilitarianism. It raises some very intriguing questions about just how we can appropriate an action’s goodness or badness. Then I’d recommend you head out and get your hands on the films I’ve mentioned and think about the issues I’ve raised but don’t really have the time/wherewithal/general patience to develop. I’ll think about it more, but right now I’m tired from recording music all week long. I bid thee good evening, and promise to expand more on this (and actually deliver the Puss in Boots  feature I mentioned earlier) in a future entry. If you wanted a fulfilled premise, you should have watched Die Hard.

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Published in: on November 17, 2012 at 21:31  Leave a Comment  

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